Andrew Delbanco and the Hogwarts Experience

I imagine that if Albus Dumbledore were to write out a philosophy of education for, say, The New York Review of Books, it would look a lot like like the writings of Andrew Delbanco.

In case you don’t believe me, consider the following quotes:

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” – Albus Dumbledore


“Such an education… slakes the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one’s own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself.” – Andrew Delbanco

“It is our choices that show what we really are, far more than our abilities.” – Albus Dumbledore


“No matter how anxious today’s students may be about gaining this or that competence in a ferociously competitive world, many still crave the enlargement of heart as well as mind that is the gift of true education.” – Andrew Delbanco

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – Albus Dumbledore


“While most of us who work in education today have no language to account for this mystery, that does not mean the mystery does not exist.” – Andrew Delbanco

I point out some similar themes running between Delbanco and the beloved Headmaster of Harry Potter not only because I am a believer in the wisdom of Dumbledore, but because there is something Hogwartsian in the image of the college experience Andrew Delbanco conjures in College: What it Was, Is, And Should Be (2012). College, for Delbanco, should be a community, challenging but ultimately warm, a place where roommates have late-night intellectual debates in the halls of their residential college and ponder life’s big questions on the commons before attending lectures and small seminars taught by eccentric, brilliant professors. Students in this world study literature, history, and philosophy, because these subjects “provide a vocabulary for formulating ultimate questions of the sort that have always had special urgency for young people.” Science isn’t unimportant here, but it can never be the end of the story, because it “tells us nothing about how to shape a life or how to face death, about the meaning of love, or the scope of responsibility” (Delbanco 99). Nor is classroom learning necessarily the most important part of the schooling experience. Delbanco’s students, like Harry and his friends, learn some of their most important lessons from each other (“lateral learning,” Delbanco calls this) and from “loafing” around.

If this sort of idyllic universe stirs up for you images of Hogwarts or of an ivy-covered, cloistered campus somewhere on the East Coast, I don’t think those associations are off the mark. First of all, Delbanco does admittedly focus much of his discussion on “elite” schools, like Columbia, where he currently serves as Director of American Studies, specializing in the work of Herman Melville.  And while I don’t remember him actually using the word “magic” anywhere, he certainly does believe that there is something truly transformative and mysterious about really good teaching and a really powerful four-year college experience.

Like Hogwarts, Delbanco’s ideal college experience is under attack from a number of dark forces, and in College, as well as his writings for The New York Review of Books, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Nation, and other publications, Delbanco strives to enumerate these forces (They That Must Not Be Named? I promise I’m almost done with the HP stuff…), think about how to fight back against them, and in the process, articulate what a good college education should strive to do. In this sense, his work sometimes feels more like a rallying cry than a presentation of anything really ground-breaking in-and-of itself, but he nevertheless provides a very clear outline of some of the biggest challenges to the sort of college experience he champions. They are:

(1) The Rise of the Research University

For Delbanco, the development of massive universities devoted primarily to research presents a fundamental challenge to the idea of “the college experience” – although he doesn’t dismiss the idea that universities could (and sometimes do) provide this experience. Nevertheless, he uses the rise of the university as a way of approaching a whole range of obstacles, including issues of scale, increased specialization of research, and lack of attention to undergraduate needs. Most of all, Delbanco is threatened by the dominance of research and scientific knowledge as the basis for value in academia. Science, with its emphasis on demonstrable progress and utility, has created a paradigm that crowds out other ways of evaluating knowledge of value, and “the university is the key institution that nurtures, exemplifies, and promotes [this] fundamental idea of modern culture: the idea of progress” (Delbanco 95).

(2) Stubborn Inequalities in Access & The Cult of Meritocracy

One of the most important tenets of Delbanco’s educational philosophy is the idea of higher education as a democratic venture – both because of the importance of an educated citizenry to a functioning democracy, and because of a belief in the idea that the circumstances of birth should not determine educational outcomes. Accordingly, Delbanco is appalled at the inequalities in access to college and college retention facing low-income and minority students, and he’s especially concerned that the idyllic “college experience” of the type offered by Columbia is so elusive to so many of these students. Perhaps most interestingly, Delbanco questions the value of a meritocracy, if ultimately the “series of trials and rewards” only “designing to convince the winners that they deserve their winnings” (Delbanco 134).

(3) The Lost Art of Good Teaching

Delbanco is a true believer in the importance of really quality teaching for undergraduates, and he suggests that the rise of massive universities has made this kind of teaching increasingly hard to find – because of class size, because of the structure of academic hierarchies, because faculty are overworked and underpaid and graduate students are overworked and hardly paid at all. He also suggests (radically!) that teaching should be a core component of any training for graduate students and new faculty. Some of Delbanco’s more recent work has focused on MOOC’s, which seem to place him in an interesting position, as they open up the possibility of a more democratized education but also further threaten the type of in-person connection between teacher and student he so values.

At times, Delbanco seems a touch idealistic, or nostalgic for the golden days of the past (although he himself cautions against envisioning the past as a refuge from the problems of the present), or perhaps even a bit elitist in his emphasis on a particular kind of particularly expensive and exclusive education. These are all possibilities he’s well aware of. And at times, it felt like Delbanco was not doing much more than summarizing a lot of major problems without delving into any of them in any real depth. But that’s not to say he has no unique contribution: one of the most important qualities of Delbanco’s work, I believe, is its grounding in history. In an educational landscape full of new, and often competing ideas, Delbanco is able to really think long and hard about what college has meant in the life of the United States, in order to think more clearly about what parts of that experience to keep and what parts to throw away.

Finally, I found it really, really nice to read a clear articulation of what college should be about that moves beyond utility and commerce, even if I’m not sure it will convince those who are pushing in the opposite direction. So I’ll end with Delbanco’s core educational philosophy (which I hope is more than a Harry Potter-esque fantasy):

 “At its core, a college should be a place where young people find help for navigating the territory between adolescence and adulthood. It should provide guidance, but not coercion, for students trying to cross that treacherous terrain on their way toward self-knowledge. It should help them develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship. Here is my own attempt at reducing these qualities to a list, in no particular order of priority, since they are inseparable from one another:

1.  A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past

2.  The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.

3.    Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts.

4.    A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own

5.    A sense of ethical responsibility.”

(Delbanco 3)

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